to Ciudad Perdida
A five-days hike to
the lost city of Teyuna
Hidden deep in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the northern part of Colombia lies a Precolombian city, called Teyuna by the native Colombians, at an altitude of 1,200 meters. Its Spanish name is Ciudad Perdida, Lost City. From El Mamey it's five days up- and downhill through the green jungle, countless times crossing the Baritara River to bridge the 44 kilometers to the 1,200 stone steps that lead to circular terraces that were made around 800 and where a few thousand of Tairona Indians lived before the Spanish invasion.
Travelogue & photos: Peter van Boheemen
I quickly find a hotel after arriving by nightbus from Bucaramanga in the coastal town of Santa Martha in northern Colombia. The owner immediately begins to promote the trek to Ciudad Perdida. I already decided at home that I wanted to take this trip, so it doesn't take much convincing.
After 24 hours in Santa Martha I wait for the bus that will take me to the starting point of the trek through the coastal mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It takes a while until everything is ready, but eventually all tourists are gathered in and we leave for the adventure.
We drive for one and a half hours on a paved road, then transfer into an old jeep which takes way too many people over an unpaved road along dangerously deep ravines. When the jeep really can't move any further, we walk the rest of the distance, fortunately not very far.
The hike begins in this rural village
We spend the night in El Mamey. The group consists of fifteen people, which is actually too many. It's a mixed company: different age groups and nationalities, among which a lot of Germans.
After lunch we explore the village, which doesn't take long. After dinner it's dark and we look for our accomodation by flashlight.
It is a concrete building with bedrooms, in each of which lie around five mattrases on the floor. We find our places and roll out our sheet sleeping bags. There is a simple bathroom where we first have to chase off a large spider and then wash ourselves with little bowls of water from a plastic barrel.
Meanwhile it has begun to rain. Between showers I get a beer at the local supermarket on the other side of the street and then I spend the evening relaxing on the porch.
The mattrases on the floor are adequate, I wake up wonderfully rested. We eat breakfast with lots of eggs. And then we go hiking, that's what we came for, after all.
I now get what they mean when they call it a "sweating tour"
For the first leg we have horses to carry the luggage. We carry our personal stuff on our backs, but that isn't a lot. It should be possible to survive for five days with just a toilet bag, towel, sheet sleeping bag, swimsuit, sandals and an extra T-shirt.
The hike begins with grand views of the green mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Martha. We walk along, but also through, the fast-flowing river Baritara. That will happen often during the next few days and every time it means taking off your hiking boots, put on sandals and then wade through the water to the other side, sometimes ankle-deep, sometimes immersed up to your waist.
Every now and then we have to walk up steep slopes. I remember reading about the 'sweating tour'. I now get what they mean by that. The high humidity makes drops of sweat roll over my face.
On the way there are diminutive kiosks that sell food and drinks. We have lunch in a small Indian village by the river. We can swim here, too. It's wonderful to jump in the clear, cool water with my sweaty body.
After lunch it becomes clear that not everyone is sufficiently in shape to climb the steep slopes. Thre Germans stay in the village and will walk back to El Mamey tomorrow.
The others walk boldly on over muddy paths. There is more shade now, because the path leads through tropical vegetation, but I still sweat a lot. At the end of the afternoon we arrive at the place where we'll spend the night. There are cassocks and there is no electricity. We can swim here, too, and there even are primitive (cold) showers.
Maria, our cook, cooks a huge pan of excellent corn soup on a wood fire. It's impressive how she manages to cook a meal for so many people in these primitive circumstances.
It gets dark and we light candles. We chat with our traveling companions, but after a short while we all retreat to our cassocks.
If you want to sleep well in a cassock, you have to lie down diagonally. I succeed fairly well.
Authentic Tairona Indian villages
Steep stone steps lead to the lost city
After a breakfast of yoghurt and fruit salad we pack our backpacks and continue on our hike. We pass authentic villages with Tairona Indian cabins. Then the trail takes us along the fast-flowing Baritara river. Sometimes we look down at deep ravines. The wild nature is very impressive.
Today we frequently have to change from hiking boots into sandals to cross the river. It makes the feet soft. Immediately after our last river crossing we arrive at camp Parayso Tayanu, where we will spend the night. It has tents on its porch. I am assigned a large double tent just for me.
If we want to, we can get a sneak preview of Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). 'Just bring water and a camera,' our guide Luiz says. He shouldn't have said that. I throw my slippers out of my bag, but we have to cross the river four times. I have to wade in bare feet and that hurts. But I make it. Steep stone steps that are part of the city lead uphill.
The construction of Ciudad Perdida by the Tairona Indians probably began in 800. It is one of the largest Precolombian cities that have been found so far. Its population was between two and four thousand people.
Its location in the middle of nowhere plus the fact that it was completely overgrown with tropical vegetation, Ciudad Perdida was only discovered in the early 1970s by grave robbers. The government pronounced it protected archeological heritage in 1976. There used to be around 170 terraces, three of which were large and beautifully located at the top of the mountain.
Travel information warned that you should take this excursion mostly because of the hike in the wilderness and not because of the destination. I disagree. The destination is at least as beautiful, with its many stone steps, green terraces and the still recognizable layout of the city.
The area is protected by the Colombian army since a group of tourists was kidnapped here in 2003. At the observation point there is even a permanent military camp. The soldiers are bored to tears, because nothing happened since 2003. When a blond German tourist asks if her picture can be taken with the soldiers, her request is greeted with enthousiasm.
After the photo-op we return to our camp. Again we wade through the water in bare feet. This time things go wrong. I loose my balance and my camera gets wet. At first I don't notice. After I find out, I dry the camera, but there is already water inside the lens. An American in our group has a golden tip: put the camera in a bag of rice for one night. After all, rice absorbs water and that way the camera will dry. I "borrow" a bag of rice from the cook and yes, the next day the camera is dry and it works, too!
The cooking crew, led by Maria, has again prepared a wonderful meal tonight. A huge plate of spaghetti provides a lot of energy. And so does a night of sleep in the tent.
Ciudad Perdida in the morning sun
Some questions remain unanswered
Today we visit Ciudad Perdida again, but this time our guide Enrique joins us to tell us about the history of the place. Carlos, our Colombian Frenchman, translates his words into English. Ciudad Perdida looks more beautiful in the morning sun than it did last afternoon in the nevel.
There isn't much known about the culture of the Tairona Indians who lived here. Some questions remain unanswered. Why is this lost city on the highest point, at 1,200-1,300 meters? Maybe because of the cooler climate, but we'll never know for sure.
And then there is this large container, buried in the ground. What was it for? A grave, a water reserve or a bath tub? We will probably never know. But it's clear what the small stone bowls with oval-shaped rocks in them were for: to grind corn and wheat. There are some replicas of cabins that used to stand here.
On the way back Eric, our Canadian, searches for snakes that are supposed to live here. After lifting many stones he still hasn't found one, but back at the camp someone has a surprise for him.
Someone found a small poisonous snake. This young reptile has a fatal poisonous bite! After everyone has taken pictures of it, it is killed. Brutal, but what would we do if a poisonous snake was living in our backyard?
Diving into the river from a height of eight meters
The strong current drags me with along
We pack our stuff and go on our way back. We take the same route as before, but this time downhill. We spend the night again in the camp with the cassocks.
Our Americans found a place on the way to Ciudad Perdida where you can jump in the river from a height of ten meters. I though they exaggerated, but when I get there I can see it's at least eight meters.
I want to take a jump there. It's scary from this height. I jump, float in the air, fall in the river and immediately feel the strong current dragging me under water, after which I end up in a quieter part with my head above water. This is definitely a thrill.
In the evening we get the offer to see how cocaine is made. But we think the fee of $15 a head is way too high. Even after they tell us that it is because it's illegal.
The Tairona Indians tell us about their way of life. We ask them how they feel about tourism in their area. Doesn't it threaten their traditional way of life? They tell us they don't have a problem with it. When tourists walk on their lands, they are compensated, which is a welcome source of income.
We blow out the candles and retreat to our cassocks. I don't sleep very well, because I have slept too much over the last few days. But I'm still well-rested in the morning.
I only am really awake after a blood-curling scream from a German woman. Someone found a huge hairy spider in a garbage bag. The woman who found it, is unafraid and shows us the animal. It's at least 20 centimeters long! Guide Enrique has to bring the spider to some far-away bushes before the German woman dares to get back to her cassock.
A maquette in Museo del Oro gives a realistic impression
Today is the last leg of the hike. We meet more living creatures on the way: a crab, a crayfish and a stick insect.
A feuw nasty climbs make us sweat. Despite the fact that we are taking the same way back, nature is still impressive. It's almost surreal, like a Jurassic Park animation, but it's real.
Back in El Mamey we have a final dinner together. Then a short walk to the jeep that is waiting for us. It is a tough ride, with a damaged tire and a lot of slipping and sliding along deep ravines. Every now and then, when it really gets too dangerous, we all get out of the vehicle to allow the jeep to take the hard leg empty.
Back on the asphalted main road we wait for the bus that will take us back to Santa Marta. The local supermarket near the bus stop does good business with cold beer. When the bus arrives, it's only one and a half hour more to Santa Marta, where everyone returns to their hotels.
I will stay another day. I don't want to miss Museo del Oro. It has a maquette of Ciudad Perdida which shows a realistic impression of what it must have looked like in the past.
When I left for a seven weeks vacation in Colombia, I expected this trekking to be the highlight of the trip and now I can say that my expectations were completely justified.
This trekking is part of a longer tour of Colombia.